William Howard Taft was born on December 5, 1857, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of a prominent attorney who had served in the Grant cabinet and later as American minister to Russia and Austria-Hungary.
William Howard Taft graduated from Yale University in 1878, and earned a law degree from the Cincinnati Law School two years later. Due largely to his father`s influence, he was appointed an assistant prosecuting attorney for Hamilton County. He worked briefly for the Internal Revenue Service before opening a law practice in 1883. William Howard Taft married Helen Herron in 1886. She was a very important influence on his life, providing the drive and ambition he lacked. She had promised herself early in life that she would some day be First Lady. In 1887, Taft was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Ohio superior court and was elected to that position the following year. In 1890, the Tafts moved to Washington, where he became solicitor general in the Benjamin Harrison administration. During these years, Taft became a friend and lunch partner of Theodore Roosevelt, who was then a civil service commissioner. Taft was next appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court in 1892, and served until becoming a law professor and dean in Cincinnati. During the McKinley administration, Taft headed the Philippines Commission, studying ways to implement civilian government in the recently acquired islands. In 1901, he accepted the position of governor of the Philippines. He was initially reluctant to make such a drastic change in lifestyle, but was persuaded by his wife. William Howard Taft was generally successful with this endeavor, winning the trust of many of the natives by sympathetic consideration of their plight. He worked to provide educational opportunities and negotiated with the Vatican for the sale of church lands to be put back into farming. Taft clashed with the American military commander, General Arthur MacArthur (father of Douglas MacArthur) over harsh treatment of the Filipinos. Taft was eventually successful in having MacArthur removed from his command. Taft expressed much of the paternalism common to his age by advising against rapid self-government for his "little brown brothers." The Philippines would not receive its independence until 1946. Roosevelt persuaded Taft to head the War Department in 1904, a position for which he had no particular background or training. The president was adamant because he wanted the trustworthy Taft in the cabinet and at hand as an advisor. This successful stint involved Taft acting as supervisor of the Panama Canal construction and chief go-between in the strained relationship with the Japanese. Roosevelt engineered the Republican nomination for William Howard Taft in 1908, but not without some sniping from critics. Some wag suggested that TAFT stood for "take advice from Theodore." The Republican ticket won a convincing victory over the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Taft`s domestic policy featured active pursuit of trust-busting and strengthening the Interstate Commerce Commission. However, he lost the support of the Republican Party`s progressive wing because of a botched performance on the tariff and an unfortunate conservation controversy. His exercise of "Dollar Diplomacy" in dealings in Latin America and the Far East provoked mistrust, but he managed to settle several nagging problems with Canada. In 1912, William Howard Taft chose to seek another term as president and had the support of the Republican Party political machinery. However, he was challenged by a frustrated Roosevelt who had been offended by the prosecution of "good trusts," the slackening of trust-busting against "bad trusts," the sacking of Gifford Pinchot and dithering on the tariff issue. Roosevelt`s Bull Moose Party siphoned-off enough support from the incumbent to assure the victory of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Bitterly disappointed, Taft found solace following the presidency in his true love, the law. He was appointed to the law faculty at Yale, but continued some political involvement by campaigning for Charles Evans Hughes in 1916. During American involvement in World War I, William Howard Taft served on the National War Labor Board and later supported Wilson`s quest for the League of Nations. In what he regarded as the highlight of his public life, William Howard Taft received an appointment as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1921. He was not regarded as a great or innovative legal mind, but his measured ways brought an element of peace to a divided Court. Most of his rulings bore a conservative stamp, notably the case of Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co., which struck down a federal law taxing products created by child labor. However in Adkins v. Children`s Hospital in 1923, he ruled in favor of Minimum Wage legislation, one of the products of the Progressive Era which he is often felt to have opposed.
William Howard Taft retired from the Court in February 1930, on account of declining health. He died a month later. As a man of moderate views and a judicial temperament, he was an unlikely successor to the intemperate Roosevelt; it would have taken a far different personality to withstand such a comparison. Taft could have been regarded as a progressive leader in another time, but such was not his lot. He died on March 8, 1930.